The Most Powerful Women in Sports: 35 Executives and Influencers Winning Over the Next Generation of Fans

Our second-annual list of the MVPs of the sports marketing world

Photograph: Sasha Maslov; Styling: Stephanie Flor
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Adweek went far afield for our second annual list of Powerful Women in Sports, selecting leaders from the burgeoning world of esports, the ascendant women’s soccer arena and a brand-new basketball league—plus the mar-tech and artificial-intelligence innovators serving the sports marketing ecosystem. Here, Adweek honors the 35 female executives and influencers who are winning over the next generation of fans and scoring new partnerships with brands.

Katrina Adams
Chairman, president, CEO, United States Tennis Association;
chairman, U.S. Open

The firsts keep stacking up for Adams, the first pro player, the first African American and the youngest person to serve as the top executive of the U.S. Tennis Association. In January, she started a second two-year term, becoming the first person to do so in the organization’s history. The former pro singles and doubles player, who hit her first tennis ball when she was 6 years old, has made inclusiveness and access a priority during her tenure, aiming to further diversify the game. Her outreach effort to Hispanics grew that audience of tennis players by double digits in its first year.

Christina Alejandre
General manager, ELeague; vp, esports

Where others failed to make compelling television out of esports, Alejandre succeeded with the launch early last year of ELeague. The property, nominated for a Sports Emmy this spring and airing on TBS, recently broke Twitch records (1 million-plus views), attracting new sponsors Geico, Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Its event coverage, including partnerships with Blizzard and Capcom, keeps growing. Next: another round of red-hot Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in September. Alejandre, a 15-year industry vet whose gamer bona fides stretch from Atari to Nintendo Switch, knows her crowd, making esports “more digestible to a casual audience,” she says, while staying “authentic to the space and without dumbing down the experience for the passionate community.”

Erin Andrews
Broadcaster, Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1

Television viewers may think of Andrews as indefatigable, seeing her diligent and ever-present reporting from major events like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500, along with her co-hosting gig on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Her dedication became even more obvious when she was back on the sidelines covering a Packers-Cowboys game last October five days after surgery for cervical cancer, having told her doctor, “I’m not watching any football games at home,” she said to Sports Illustrated early this year when she revealed her illness. Andrews, an ESPN vet, has renewed her multi-year contract with Fox Sports to focus solely on the NFL.

Lisa Borders
President, WNBA

A former Coca-Cola executive and longtime WNBA fan, Borders shook up the 20-year-old league in 2016, allowing the two top teams from the same conference (Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx) to go toe-to-toe for what became a heart-pounding, five-game championship series. TV audiences for the season jumped double digits on ESPN, social media followers and video views soared, merchandise sales bumped up 30 percent and attendance hit a five-year high. The league added Exxon and signed Verizon as its marquee sponsor. Up next: more livestreaming on Twitter and daily fantasy games that will, Borders says, “reflect our commitment to building on last season’s momentum and continuing to broaden our reach.”

Karen Brodkin
Evp, content strategy and partnerships, WME | IMG

The idea of airing video game tournaments on television might’ve seemed like a head-scratcher not long ago. Now, less than two years into the launch of ELeague, an IMG and Turner collaboration, it’s an unqualified hit and a fast-growing sports entertainment property, having spread to 80 countries. But Brodkin, one of its architects, sees bigger numbers ahead, aiming to add to the 1 trillion-plus total minutes of consumption ELeague has already racked up across digital and linear platforms to date. A veteran of Fox Sports, Brodkin also works with the firm’s college sports clients, global brand partnership group and media rights division, where she’s guiding Fightball, sometimes described as a gladiator version of one-on-one basketball.

Heidi Browning
CMO, evp, National Hockey League

Going from scrappy startup Pandora to the 100-year-old NHL was “surprisingly easy,” Browning says, because both companies “share a common cultural value: a fan-first mentality.” Browning’s mandate when she arrived at the league late last year was clear: ramp up digital and social media, use technology to enhance the fan experience, dive further into mobile and location-based services, custom-target the die-hards, and reach out to more women, millennials and casual fans. Browning, a 25-year marketing vet, will borrow from her Silicon Valley roots, where she still has a foothold and a home base, to embed virtual reality into hockey and drive engagement with the NHL app. Her momentum has already started, with Stanley Cup Final ratings jumping 23 percent year over year.

Kenyatta Bynoe
Vp, global brand marketing and partnerships, Spalding

There’s no worse fate in marketing than being left out of the conversation, and Spalding was in such a spot when Bynoe joined the iconic sporting goods brand. In only two years, she changed everything, jump-starting its consumer advertising, hiring an agency, building an internal marketing team, redesigning the brand ID and launching ecommerce, along with overhauling and exploding social engagement. The global ad campaign, “True Believers,” celebrating athletes’ hard work, went hand in hand with her revamped NBA endorsement roster. Bynoe, a 20-year marketing vet, delivered on her goal of taking the brand “from a position of passive respect in the minds of consumers” to “active love in their hearts.”

Amanda Duffy
Managing director of operations, National Women’s Soccer League

In a few short years, Duffy took Louisville, Ky.’s nascent professional soccer team from local newcomer to stadium filler. Under her guidance as the only female president in the United Soccer League’s history, Louisville City FC climbed to the top 25 in attendance across all pro soccer leagues in North America, including Major League Soccer. She’s had an even larger playing field since January, when she jumped to the National Women’s Soccer League for the newly created operations job, just as the 5-year-old league inked a groundbreaking partnership and TV deal with Lifetime. A former pro soccer star herself, Duffy is helping launch NWSL Media, the league’s marketing, broadcast and commercial arm.

Nancy Dubuc
President, CEO, A+E Networks

Lifetime, home of Project Runway and Dance Moms, may not be known as a sports destination, but Dubuc saw an opportunity to make it one, leading a groundbreaking deal this spring between the channel’s parent company, A+E Networks, and the National Women’s Soccer League, taking an equity stake in the 5-year-old league, airing weekly games for the next three years and creating a joint venture to handle digital assets like livestreaming, mobile apps and social media. It fits because, as Dubuc said during the news conference to announce the alliance, Lifetime isn’t “just a television brand,” reaching 96 million U.S. homes, “it’s a female media brand.”

Pamela El
CMO, National Basketball Association, WNBA, NBA Gatorade League

Crunching numbers can’t possibly be as exciting as watching professional basketball, but El knows the two are inseparable. With a rallying cry to bring on the data geeks, El relies on research and analytics for her digital-dominant marketing strategy. “Less than 1 percent of NBA fans experience a game inside an arena,” she said during a recent Adobe Summit. “It is through technology that we engage with our fans.” Her approach for the men’s league, on the heels of the successful “This Is Why We Play” campaign, boosted audiences to 1 billion viewers and 1.3 billion social media followers last year. The recent NBA Finals had the highest ratings in nearly 20 years. She also launched the WNBA’s award-winning 20th anniversary marketing effort, “Watch Me Work,” which increased attendance, viewership and social media presence.

Monica Fee
Property sales executive, CAA Sports

Having recently matched ExxonMobil with Formula One’s Red Bull Racing for the season’s spring launch, Fee is now searching for blue-chippers for F1 itself, aiming to take the global sports property from sponsorship underachiever to partnership powerhouse. As the senior female member of CAA Sports, Fee has been pivotal in landing more than $3.5 billion in sponsorships and naming rights, including Chase Center, the under-construction home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, and Levi’s Stadium, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers arena, a deal that centered on a 20-year, $220 million agreement with Levi Strauss & Co. and nearly $500 million from two dozen additional brand partners.

Lesa France Kennedy
CEO, International Speedway Corp.; vice chair, ISC’s board of directors

There’s no resting on laurels for France Kennedy, even when a recent win includes a $400 million renovation of the Daytona International Speedway, making it what she calls “the world’s only motor sports stadium.” The executive, third-generation racing royalty whose grandfather founded Nascar in 1948, is now developing One Daytona, a 300,000-square-foot mixed-use complex near the reimagined Daytona Rising track. “We compete with stick-and-ball sports properties and entertainment venues,” she says, making it imperative to keep “the crown jewel of our sport polished.” Managing an additional dozen of the country’s biggest racetracks, she’s also overseeing the $178 million modernization of the Phoenix Raceway.

Stacy Fuller
Evp, creative, Havas Sports & Entertainment

To stretch a brand’s marketing dollars and snag earned media, “sponsored by” just won’t do for Fuller. Instead, the Havas executive intertwined TracFone’s Straight Talk Wireless with TNT’s Area 21 and Kevin Garnett for custom segments that had the ex-basketball pro chatting with celebrity guests. Straight talk only, of course. Instrumental in launching Havas Sports & Entertainment, Fuller highlighted Tag Heuer’s 2016 sponsorship of the TCS New York City Marathon via branded content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms. The five-month program, following eight runner-influencers, pulled in 113 million impressions and 8.6 million consumer engagements.

Esther Garcia
Vp, Heineken’s Tecate and Tecate Light

Garcia treats marketing like a full-contact sport, and she intends to throw her share of body blows, literally. The Tecate exec has immersed herself in boxing classes to prep for her brand’s partnership with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions for the much-anticipated Sept. 16 match in Las Vegas between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. Garcia is now busy brainstorming with De La Hoya and boxing promoter Bob Arum. Drawing from her father’s insight as a former welterweight fighter, Garcia wants to make Tecate synonymous with the sweet science in the U.S. The Unilever and Kimberly-Clark vet did the same for Heineken and soccer in Spain, pairing the beer with the Champions League, which counts more than 4.2 billion fans globally.

Virginia Halas McCaskey
Owner, Chicago Bears

Though she’s known for being hands-off in the day-to-day operations of her team, Halas McCaskey gets involved, and makes news, when the Chicago Bears aren’t performing. She forced out the coach and general manager in 2014, with headlines saying the nonagenarian businesswoman and mother of 11 was “pissed off” at the club’s losing streak. McCaskey, often called the First Lady of the NFL, inherited the team from her father, George Halas, renowned coach and one of the founders of the American Football Association, the forerunner of the NFL. Forbes estimates her net worth at $1.3 billion, due largely to her 80 percent stake in the Bears, which she has promised to keep in the family.

Dawn Hudson
Chief marketing officer, National Football League

There may have been a softer side of the NFL before Hudson arrived, but the testosterone-charged league hadn’t shown it much. Enter Hudson, who in the last few years has introduced an NFL-sponsored conference for women and young girls as part of Super Bowl week activities (encouraging hundreds of attendees to play sports and learn about the business side of the games), partnered with The Ad Council on the inclusive public service campaign, “Love Has No Labels,” and worked on programs to draw more women into the league’s coaching, scouting and management ranks. Hudson also shepherds advertising, including the Super Bowl LI viral hit, “Baby Legends,” featuring pint-size versions of icons like Joe Namath, Mike Ditka and Marshawn Lynch.

This story first appeared in the June 26, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.